Category Archives: Books and reading

Outside Lothlórien

Feeling ambitious this year, I’m rereading The Lord of the Rings. I read it for the first time when I was 15 or 16. I liked it, and yet I also remember it as a struggle to get through. Over the years, I’ve told myself so many times that it was a struggle, and that the language was archaic, and that there were scarcely any women in the story, and so on, that what I told myself about the book replaced most of my actual memories. I’ve never convinced myself to try it again until now, thirty years after that first reading—I’ve always worried that if I tried to reread it, I might not like it as much as I did in high school. But I want to read some longer works this year, I really have been meaning to reread it ever since I saw the movies, and now I have it as an e-book, sparing me from hauling a 4 lb. 12 oz. (2.2 kg) tome around.

I’d forgotten almost every detail of the book, starting with the fact that it begins with a 15-page essay on hobbit culture. Part of this essay sums up what the reader needs to know about the Ring from The Hobbit, but most of it is just Tolkien having fun with world-building. It’s probably good that he wrote the book when he did; I’m having the hardest time imagining a modern publisher letting him begin with something with so little action. I doubt this essay grabbed my attention as a teenager, so I was happy to discover that I was enjoying it as an anthropological piece. Most of it, anyway. No matter at what age I read this book, I don’t think I’ll ever be interested in a history of smoking.

My frustration at distinguishing somewhat similar characters is one of my strongest memories from my first reading. Merry and Pippin never felt all that distinct to me. Mostly they were the hobbits who weren’t Frodo and Sam, and they tended to blend into a unit: Merry-and-Pippin. The Men fared little better. I wasn’t particularly fond of either Aragorn or Boromir, but Aragorn  did have the advantage of having a head start of several chapters on Boromir, allowing me to get some sense of him as a character. I ended up thinking of them as Aragorn and Not-Aragorn. Plus, of course, the Elf and the Dwarf (no further characterization needed, apparently).

I am definitely doing better at differentiating those characters this time around. The movies are due much of the credit for this. I’ve never been good at turning written descriptions into mental images, and that is exactly what the movies have done. Now I “know” what Aragorn and Boromir look like, I hear everyone’s dialogue in different voices as I read (with a curious silence for Glorfindel, Tom Bombadil, and other characters who didn’t make it into the movies), and I have a sense of the scenery. And this time around, I know that telling the characters apart is going to be a challenge, so I’m actively looking for the little details that distinguish them from each other. Merry is the worldliest of the hobbits to begin with, the one who organized the plan to help Frodo and Sam sneak out of the Shire, and who noticed on his own that Bilbo had a magical Ring and what that might mean. He doesn’t come across as being as young and impetuous as Pippin. As for the Men—well, they really are different. Aragorn is solitary (by nature? by circumstance?), but must work with a group, and now I’m seeing his struggles with leadership after Moria. Boromir? More of a team player, preferring to speak of the Men of Minas Tirith rather than his own accomplishments. (Other thoughts on him will have to wait for another post.) And, well, I won’t have to distinguish him from Aragorn for much longer. Gimli, too, has nuances to his character that I didn’t remember from the first reading. Alas, the fact of being an Elf seems to be all the character development that Tolkien thought Legolas needed. Still, most of LOTR is left; there’s still time for him and the others to reveal more about themselves.

Even if the movies had never existed, having already read the book helps tremendously. I’m not used to fiction that reveals more on a second reading; this may encourage me to reread more. With a sense of the bigger picture, I can see how smaller scenes fit together. Now I see Tolkien is foreshadowing Gollum’s return—I probably forgot all about Frodo’s glimpses of pale eyes by the time he finally appears. Knowing that Boromir will eventually succumb to the temptation of the Ring, I’m paying more attention to what he says, looking for those first signs of weakness. Furthermore, knowing that Gondor will be important later on, I’m paying more attention to what Boromir and everyone else says about it, and am trying to understand the general political situation in Middle-earth—I’m sure I let most of that go sailing over my head way back when!

So here I am, outside Lothlórien, as the Company prepares to enter the Elven city. I dimly recall these will be the last peaceful moments for the rest of the quest. I’m going to try to see if I can tell a difference between the culture of Lothlórien and that of Rivendell—I may fault Tolkien’s development of individual characters, but he’s great with entire peoples. In my first reading, this was about the last bit of the story I enjoyed, since after the Company splits up, I found it even harder to keep track of what was going on, and where it was happening. I’m hoping that this too is clearer on a second reading.

Reading, 2012

This was my second year participating in the Goodreads Reading Challenge, and I stretched a bit, setting a goal of reading 110 books, ten more than my 2011 goal. I’m thrilled to report I made it to 111. Sure, I fit a few graphic novels in, but not so many that it felt like padding my totals, and I didn’t completely forego reading long books either. (Although I think The Name of the Wind could have been edited down some. Or a lot.) Naturally, not all 111 books were equally memorable, but years from now, I’m likely to remember reading the following:

  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (10/10; finished 2/26/2012): I’ve already blogged about Quiet at some length, so I’ll just say here that it was about introversion, it was interesting, and it’s on my hypothetical list of Books to Recommend to Those Who Don’t Get Why Some People Like Staying Home on Friday Night.
  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (5/10; finished 3/1/2012): When this book came out, practically everyone raved about it, so I was really looking forward to it. I grant it has a compelling plot and is a real page-turner (or button-clicker in this case, as I was reading it on the Kindle). But…but…it’s a self-insertion fic. A Gary Stu. Readable, yes, which many self-insertion fics aren’t, but why the endless praise? (And I am so glad I didn’t buy a copy.)
  • How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier (8/10; finished 3/13/2012): A fun YA fantasy set in a world pretty much like ours except that almost everyone has a personal fairy, a magical gift that’s usually helpful. Unfortunately the narrator is stuck with a parking fairy (she’s too young to drive) and her classmate has an all-boys-like-you fairy (not so great when it means all-girls-hate-you). Chaos ensues.
  • At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (9/10; finished 4/7/2012): Certainly this book was shorter than it would be if Bryson had set out to write a complete history of all the disparate elements that form private life, but I hesitate to call a 513-page book “short.” So yes, it was kind of longish and wandering, organized loosely around the structure of a house (the hall, the bedroom, the kitchen), and stuffed full of interesting trivia—definitely worth the wandering.
  • The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey (10/10; finished 6/6/2012): I rarely read memoirs. If I were to get into reading memoirs, I doubt reading memoirs about illness would be the first ones to appeal to me. This is a memoir about being ill that is wrapped in a nature study of snails, and with the snail definitely the focus of the work, I found it captivating. Unfortunately I can never seem to describe it in an enticing way.
  • Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey (10/10; finished 7/28/2012): A fantasy novel set in New Zealand which makes use of both Maori and European mythology. Yes, it’s got a teenage girl protagonist who tells the story in first person, as so many fantasies do nowadays. But I thought Ellie was believably flawed even with her magic, this isn’t a dystopian novel, and Healey makes the secondary characters distinctive and important to the story, so I figure it’s pretty darned original overall.

And since these three sort of go together, I am splitting them off from the rest.

  • The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality by Chris Mooney (10/10; finished 5/25/2012)
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt (10/10; finished 9/15/2012)
  • Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think by George Lakoff (8/10; finished 11/19/2012)

The presidential election notwithstanding, I had no intentions of reading political books this year. I only started The Republican Brain because I hoped it would tell me something about liberal psychology—Mooney had to compare Republican brains to something, right? As it turned out, the book really was more about conservative psychology than anything else, but I found it fascinating, so when Amazon recommended The Righteous Mind, I dove in. I found it meatier and probably more useful long-term than The Republican Brain, and months later I’m still pondering Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory. So finally, after sixteen years or so, I read Moral Politics. It wasn’t as organized as The Righteous Mind (nothing is that organized!), and sometimes it was heavy going, but Lakoff’s explanations of Strong Father and Nurturant Parent morality are a lot more nuanced in the book than when summarized in others’ writings, and they’re still applicable today.

Book musings: Quiet

I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking back in February, about a year after I’d reread Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto, which may suggest that I find February to be the perfect time to read about people who focus more on their inner worlds than the shared outer world. As around here the outer world is usually frigid and buried under several feet of snow in February, this makes a certain sense. Now it’s November and I’m finally getting around to writing about it, as we get ready for more of that whole frigidity-and-snow thing.

Quiet

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Quiet comes across as a PBS special on introversion in print. I’ve never heard Susan Cain speak, so I don’t know what her voice sounds like. But as I read the book, what I “heard” was a documentary narrator’s voice: those slightly pedagogical tones of someone lecturing on a topic. (An interesting lecture, though. One that you want to hear, not something required for a class that you’re not interested in.) Cain herself is an introvert, but in keeping with the common perception of introverts, she’s not a big presence in her own book. She has a personal anecdote at the beginning, and sprinkles some shorter ones throughout the rest of the book, but for the most part, she tells other people’s stories. Some are historical, such as Dale Carnegie (an early promoter of what Cain calls the Extrovert Ideal), Rosa Parks, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Others are modern: introverts trying to fit in at such extroverted institutions as Harvard Business School or Saddleback Church.

I’ve read books on introversion before, so much of what Cain writes about is familiar territory. Nine months later, it’s the stuff she wrote about that was new to me that I remember the best. Her first chapter is devoted to the development of the Extrovert Ideal, “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight…prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt.” I hadn’t known that our society’s focus on personality is a modern phenomenon. Before the twentieth century, people were more interested in a person’s character, traits that run deeper and are seen as more permanent than the personality. Cain credits industrialization and population growth for this change. People can best judge the characters of those they know well. As the country grew and people moved into cities to work, the emphasis shifted to judging first impressions and the other surface traits of personality, and extroverted traits were seen as more likely to lead to success, creating the Extrovert Ideal. Most books on personality (any model, not just the MBTI) tend to deal with the present day and maybe a bit of history of the personality model itself, so I found this history of character vs. personality intriguing.

Another mostly new bit (to me) was the biology of introversion/extroversion. I’d heard some stuff about how introverted babies are more sensitive to stimuli than extroverted ones. Starting there, Cain creates an interesting chain of speculation: biological traits of extroversion, including high stimulation needs → risk-taking behavior → risky decisions → 2007 financial crisis. I lack the background to judge whether this is a solid hypothesis, but I certainly enjoyed reading it (and should probably keep it in mind if I ever reread Sam Harris’s Free Will, which suggests even more strongly that a lot of our apparently conscious decisions are made by unconscious parts of our brains).

Not all parts of Quiet were equally fascinating to me. I’m not in the corporate world, and a lot of Cain’s book focuses on that area. In the last part, where Cain turns to teaching readers how to best manage their introversion in an extroverted world, I mostly just nodded a bit and sped up my reading. But overall, it was wonderful reading a whole book on introversion (lovely introversion!). I have a third one lined up for sometime in the months ahead. Maybe February.

Unreviewable

Earlier this month, I read The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. I had a copy from the library, and as I reached the last chapter, I went to the bookstore and bought a copy for myself because I was going to want to reread parts of it and ponder them. I’ve been referring to the book in conversations—unusual, since I rarely talk about politics. I’m analyzing current events in light of Haidt’s six Moral Foundations. Filled with enthusiasm, I gave The Righteous Mind 5 stars on Goodreads and LibraryThing. It wasn’t perfect, but when a book hooks me and gives me ideas to wrestle with, I figure that cancels out some of its faults and I rate accordingly. And I would’ve loved to have accompanied those ratings with an engaging review, but the words refused to come.

This isn’t the only book I’ve had this sort of problem with. I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain back in February. I still haven’t been able to say more about than I really, really liked it, and that’s not a book review, that’s a tweet. (I really, really liked Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.: only 103 characters.) It’s not that I want to review every book I read, even every 5-star book, but when I do want to, I want to be able to do so.

So here I am, distracting myself from the frustration of not being able to say why I love a book by trying to figure out why I can’t. Ironically and irritatingly, it’s usually easy to say exactly why I didn’t like a book. Indeed, most of my efforts go into trying to keep a negative review cool and dispassionate. Since I’m writing a negative review is because I Did Not Like the book, an emotional reaction that is usually passionate as all get-out, this is a challenge. I try to explain that no, I didn’t like the book, but here’s why, hoping that readers will agree that these are good reasons to criticize a book, even if they disagree that those reasons apply to the book in question.

I think the answer lies in that classic phrase “lost in a good book.” I cannot lose myself in a “bad” book. It fails to pull me into its spell. I stand apart from it, keeping a safe psychological distance from it, and that distance is the space I need to review the book. I can list exactly what it was I didn’t like about it because I’m not within it. Most books aren’t purely loved or loathed, and for a mixed review, a bit of space lets me name what I liked as well as what I disagreed with.

The more I like a book, the more I merge with it to some degree. I’m sure that when I was younger, I could only become completely absorbed in a novel. Nowadays, I can lose myself in nonfiction as well. I may not agree with the ideas, but even while wrangling with a concept or an argument, I stay merged with the book. Lovely though that is—it’s that special thrill, the hook that leads me to bump a rating upwards—it leaves me unable to discuss the book as a whole, except in the most general way (“I loved this book!”). I’d rather enjoy the book and not be able to tell you about it than vice versa, but   ye gods, this is frustrating!

Oh, and you should read The Righteous Mind. And Quiet. Just don’t ask me why.

Close to home too

I went out for another morning walk, this time in a different direction, and found another Little Free Library.

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They’re popping up like literary mushrooms in people’s yards around here. I admire the craftsmanship of the libraries themselves. Not only do they look nice, but the books inside are dry despite the heavy rains we’ve had recently. Maybe I’ll remember to take a book with me sometime and add it to one of the collections.

Close to home

While out on a walk this morning, I came across one of the Little Free Libraries. I’d heard there was one near me, but I’d never been sure where.

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I just had to open it and straighten it up a bit. (Librarianship: it’s not just a job, it’s hardwired into my DNA.) Wow, I haven’t seen Danny Dunn books in years…

Library redux

I made it over to my newly-remodeled library yesterday, the Merriam Park branch of the St. Paul Public Library. I didn’t have time for a long visit, but I did get to wander around and check out the most obvious changes. I wasn’t organized enough to take pictures either, but the truly curious can gaze at the St. Paul Public Library’s photos.

While you can still see the basics of the old layout—the stacks are still mostly where they always were and some of the old furniture is still in use—the new layout is more open. The self-checkout computers were moved from the circulation desk to their own little island. This makes sense as the circ desk itself seems to have been trimmed down a bit and turned into the reference desk, which means reference is now closer to the front door and more obvious. The old reference desk has been magically transformed into a circle of cushy chairs. I’m happy to see cushy chairs—I’m sure the library had comfy chairs somewhere before the remodel, but most of my memories are of sitting at tables to work on my computer in chairs that were anything but “cushy” or “comfy.” And some of the chairs have cup holders—I take it that means I can bring beverages into the library? Another change: a new feature for those of us who haul our own computers, tablets, etc. to the library rather than use theirs. There’s a whole table for laptop users, complete with electric outlets and a privacy screen. Please let it be low enough that I can use it without needing to bring a booster seat with me.

The library is planning to celebrate the reopening next Saturday with a party featuring “live music and chickens.” I did have to read that a couple of times before it sank in. I may have to stop by just to see what the connection is between chickens and remodeled libraries. I suppose it’s too much to hope that I’ll be able to bring home a few freshly-laid eggs.

So I’m deliriously happy about all this, right? Yes and no. I like all the improvements I’ve seen. This branch deserved a face-lift and it got a good one. I plan to try out that new laptop table sometime and sit in a cushy chair. But while you can ask for help, checking materials in and out is now primarily the patron’s responsibility. This is great for privacy, but I’m guessing this was mainly arranged to free up the former circ staff for other duties—since the library had to reduce hours system-wide this year for budgetary reasons, I doubt they have the funding to hire much additional staff. Those reduced hours are going to make it a challenge to try out that laptop table. My best time for hanging out is Sunday afternoons, and this branch is closed on Sundays. Maybe I’ll drop by on my next day off. Maybe I’ll even bring a beverage.

This post is the product of a Sunday afternoon spent in a café. Not, alas, in the remodeled library.

58 and counting

Apparently I’m just a little book magnet. Back in February, my desktop computer died. It’s a sign of the times that I delayed replacing it until this month, living off my laptop, netbook, and iPad during the interim.* None of these, however, had my book database on it.** I had it backed up (yay, me!), but I couldn’t update it. Now, with the software reinstalled and the backup loaded, I’m starting to enter all the books I’ve picked up in the past 3½ months. Which will take a while: I have bought and borrowed at least 58 print and e-books since the computer crashed. I swear it didn’t seem like nearly that many when I was getting them. And chances are that there are more e-books hiding in the back corners of my e-readers. Sure, the borrowed books eventually go back to their owners (usually libraries), but it takes just as long to enter them in the database as it does the books I own. Luckily my old barcode scanner can still be persuaded to work with this software and Windows 7, or I’d never stand a chance of catching up. (Imagine for a moment having to enter 58+ 13-digit ISBNs by hand. You may shudder now.)

Plus, I didn’t just buy and borrow books—I got rid of a few as well. Can’t wait to try to figure out how to delete those in any sort of systematic fashion, since I didn’t keep nearly as good a record of my discards as I did my acquisitions. Oops.

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*Oh, hush. True computer geeks have more computers than I do. I just don’t dump them until they’re good and dead, and lately they’ve been lasting. Except that desktop, of course.

**Wait a minute. You’re on Goodreads and LibraryThing and you’ve got a book database on your computer? Yes. Although if any one of these three ever does everything I want, I may drop the other two. Or not.

Canada: Read an E-Book Month

My fun fact for the evening: March is officially Read an E-Book Month in Canada. I don’t know as e-books need an official sanction—they seem to be taking off quite well on their own—but it’s a pretty innocuous declaration compared to what national governments are capable of coming up with, and I’m not complaining. (Grinning, yes. Complaining, no.) I’m not planning on going out and spreading the word of e-book joy, though, except maybe through the happy expression on my face as I read a good one—and that would be due to the qualities of the book more than its format.

It is not Read an E-Book Month in the United States, but I have been accidentally celebrating anyway. That is, my local public library has added several e-books to its collection that I want to read, and I’ve been taking advantage of their new acquisitions. On top of that, either the initial rush to see what e-book checkout is like has died down, or the library has added so many new titles that everyone can usually find something to read. Whatever the reason, I’m able to check out e-books fairly regularly nowadays. This is really helping relieve my withdrawal symptoms from being cut off from the neighboring library’s e-book collection. Now if only the publishers would relax about letting libraries have access to e-books in the first place…

Wrestling the collection

My day off is being gray and soporific, so to fight off the torpor, I’m rearranging my astrology books. According to LibraryThing, I’ve tagged 178 books “astrology.” But it’s been annoying me lately that my astrology collection has been losing its internal order, so today is reorganizing day. Instead of settling into a chair or the couch all day, I’ve decided to take all the books off the shelves and stack them on the floor by topic, then reshelve them. Now I knew going in that there were approximately 178 books—okay, some of them are e-books and not part of this effort—but somehow that didn’t sink in until I saw them all out in front of me. They weren’t nearly as overwhelming when all I could see of them was their spines. And it looks like I’ve been able to divide the topic of astrology into at least 20 subtopics. I’m curious as to whether the Library of Congress Subject Headings go as greatly into depth on astrology as I do. If not, would LC hire me to revamp that area? (Probably not. In these times of slashed budgets, how do you justify an astrology and general New Age cataloger?) And no, I don’t have enough shelf space for all of them unless I unshelve something else.

Piles of astrology books

Top row: rectification, relationships, books on individual planets, ephemerides, general chart interpretation. Second row: general introductions, local space and astrolocality, miscellaneous (topics with one book each), primary directions, mundane. Third row: mythic, traditional natal, houses, aspects, modern natal (2 piles). Bottom row: planetary returns, progressions and transits and solar arcs, horary and electional, midpoints and cosmobiology, Jungian.

Tarot books will have to wait until the next free cloudy day.